David Taylor was born in Gorseinon, near Swansea, in 1938. His parents were from Ashington, Northumberland, and the family returned to the North-East in 1944. He began his career in journalism at the Newcastle Journal, and also worked for the Guardian before moving into broadcasting, initially with Tyne-Tees Television. He worked on the regional football programme Shoot and came to know several North-East football legends from the golden age of the “hotbed of football”. Nationally, he worked for BBC Panorama, where he made the now-infamous 1977 documentary about Millwall hooligans, F-Troop, Treatment and the Halfway Line. His credits as a reporter and producer also include World in Action, On the Line and Great Railway Journeys. He lives in the fishing village of Polperro, Cornwall, where he is writing a book about William Shakespeare. He spoke to The Blizzard from self-isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.

What’s your earliest football memory?

I think it was October 1946. As a very young kid, I knew nothing about football, but my father went to watch a second-division game at St James’ Park between Newcastle and Newport County. When he got back, I asked him what the score was and he said 13-0 to Newcastle. I had no idea that was anything special. I asked who the best player was and he said the Newport goalkeeper. I was too young to appreciate the irony. Because that was the day that Len Shackleton scored six goals on his debut and I don’t think anyone else has ever done that. So I became a Newcastle fan and you might say that it’s been all downhill ever since.

Can you remember the first time you went to St James’ Park?

Yes, I was in the Gallowgate End with the other kids. It was 1951, and Newcastle were taking on the League champions Portsmouth. It was just before Newcastle played Blackpool in the 51 Cup final. Portsmouth had already won the title, so had nothing to play for, while the Newcastle team were trying to avoid injury. It was a 0-0 draw. I guess it was a very dull game, but I was thrilled to be there.

Jackie Milburn played in that game and scored twice in the final, and we’ll come to him soon. But didn’t you get to know another football legend when you were a child?

This is a sad one. My father died in 1947 and we moved into a small semi in Low Fell, Gateshead, with not much of a garden. My mother went back to teaching and through the school she got to know one of the fathers who was really down on his luck. So she paid him to cut the tiny lawn we had and trim the hedge. His name was Hughie Gallacher. She had watched him as a girl when she was at training college in Newcastle. He was the captain and led Newcastle to the last of their championship victories, in 1927.

By the time I knew him, Hughie was in his mid-50s. He was a perfectly nice and quite well-spoken guy, but he was much the worse for drink. Then in 1957, when plastered, he struck his youngest son Matty, whom my mother had taught. He had never done that before, and he really loved him, and in a fit of remorse he went onto the railway line and, you know, he committed suicide. I think that’s one of the saddest stories in sport and it has always lived with me.

How did you get into football broadcasting?

I joined Tyne-Tees Television in 1966 and got to front their early evening magazine programme. Every Friday night we had a football spot where I interviewed my boyhood idol Jackie Milburn and we became really good friends. He was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He was idolised wherever he went, yet somehow remained totally humble. Do you know that whenever the team lost at home, Jackie used to barricade himself away for days because he felt that he’d let the fans down? He was an enormous worrier. When it came to the football predictions, he always thought Newcastle were going to lose. I would say to him, “Come on Jackie, they’ve got to win sometimes!”

I remember Jackie once ringing me up very excited. This was much later, but we still kept in touch. He said, “David, I’ve just seen the best young footballer I can remember. The trouble is, he’s absolutely bloody stupid.” Who was he talking about? Paul Gascoigne. “Daft as a brush” was the phrase that Jackie used, and I know Bobby Robson used it too.

Those weekly spots with Jackie gave me a taste for football analysis and commentary. I entered the nationwide Find a Commentator competition that the BBC was running for the Mexico World Cup. To my amazement, I made the final and came third. I believe Idwal Robling won and Ian St John came second. Ed Stewart the DJ was fourth. Anyway, I didn’t get the BBC job, but Tyne-Tees thought they’d better try me out and I got hired for their football programme Shoot.

So you covered Newcastle’s Fairs’ Cup win in 1969?

For the final against Újpesti Dózsa I was doing interviews through an interpreter with the Hungarians. Joe Harvey, the Newcastle manager, had never seen them play. He actually asked me, “Do you know anything about them, Dave?” I said, “No, not really.” “Oh,” he said, “that’s a pity.” I told him I was speaking to them through the interpreter, and he said, “Can you frighten them?” I said, “Joe, leave it with me.” And I really went to town. I told them how big our players were and how violent the crowd was. I turned Wyn Davies, who was a big lad, into some sort of ravenous monster. I don’t know how the Hungarians took it. But of course Newcastle won. It was an absolutely amazing experience. [The Newcastle captain] Bobby Moncur, who had never been able to score at all, got two goals in the first leg and one in the second. Just amazing. And Bobby became a good friend. He actually asked me if I’d like to be his agent, as did Frank Clark, but I told them I was too busy. I had no idea how profitable it might have been!

What was Joe Harvey like?

I’d call him a man’s man. Absolutely no nonsense about him. He was Yorkshire-born. He had the look of a sergeant major. I think he was a good leader. I don’t know that he was actually a very inspiring manager. The players liked and respected him, but largely because of what he’d achieved as a captain of the club. Straightforward, down to earth, no nonsense. And he wanted me to frighten them! He could be quite frightening himself! 

You told me you once got to play football with Jackie Milburn and Len Shackleton. How did that happen?

Yes, that would be around about the time I was doing the evening spot with Jackie, and they were both good friends. I found myself playing in the same team as them in a charity game. I played inside-forward and planned to avoid the ball and just look busy. Milburn played centre-forward and Len played inside-left. After about five minutes, we got a corner kick. The ball was cleared by the defence, and it went out to Milburn. It’s a moot point as to whether Milburn had a harder shot than Bobby Charlton. They both came from Ashington after all, I don’t know what it is about the air up there. But anyway, he hit this ball, and of course it’s one of these old fashioned balls as well. They hurt. And it’s coming straight for me. So I try, with my poor reflexes, to move out of the way but it glances off my head and goes rocketing into the corner of the net. I’m sort of semi-concussed but stagger back to the centre circle with Milburn celebrating on my back. Sheer embarrassment, but fantastic.

I got to make one other contribution. We’re one up, I thread a ball through to Shackleton, he waltzes around a couple of defenders, takes it past the goalkeeper and then hits what looks like a terrible slice. And the ball hits the inside of the post, comes back to him, and he taps it into the net. I said, “You mis-kicked that, Shack.” He said, “What do you mean? I’ve always wanted to give myself a pass off the goalpost.” And with Shackleton you had to believe it because, I mean, have you heard the stories about when he played golf? He never used a tee. He tossed the ball in the air and hit it when it came down. Not joking. His coordination and general athleticism were simply amazing.

They called Shack the Clown Prince and he certainly was that. He used to turn it on against Arsenal. They rejected him when he was a kid as being too small. And he took it out on Arsenal with great regularity. At Sunderland, when they were called the Bank of England team, they signed Trevor Ford, who at the time was the Welsh centre-forward, and Shackleton hated his guts. So he never gave him a straightforward pass. He put slice, spin, anything on it just to make his partner look a mug, which doesn’t reflect to his greater glory. No, he was not a team player, but when he turned it on, for instance, after the 1954 World Cup when West Germany were champions and they came to play England. Shackleton scored and he kept waltzing around the Germans, just showing them how good he was. He would be one of the greatest players I ever saw.

Who was the greatest?

Perhaps Wilf Mannion, the Middlesbrough forward who played for England. I went to interview him when he was working as a labourer on the Tees. It was so sad to see him there, but a kind of familiar story. I saw an instructional film he made. Just amazing. I mean, his body swerve. You really couldn’t tell which way he was going to go. So much talent. Not like modern footballers who are absolutely amazingly fit athletes who could run up to down the field so many times. But really, how much skill do they have? Most of them are lucky if they’ve got one foot, let alone two.

Your career moved towards current affairs, but you continued to cover North-East football.

Yes, I stated working for the BBC in London, but such was my love of football that I travelled up to Newcastle every week to do Shoot’s after match packages. I did such a good job that I got the Tyne-Tees cameras banned from both St James’ Park and Roker Park. I remember the thing that really upset Newcastle was when I described them as having played “garbage football” or something equally rude and ridiculous. And unfortunately about three days later Frank Clark came on the programme and he brought it up. He said, “I went to this working men’s club and I mentioned the disgraceful way you described us and they all said, ‘Well, he was right!’”

Did you cover Sunderland’s FA Cup win in 1973?

No, I was filming for the BBC in Africa for about 10 weeks during Sunderland’s cup run and got news of their amazing win over Leeds when I was in Upper Volta [now Burkina Faso]. I couldn’t believe the news and sent my researcher down a mountain to check his facts. He came back with a garbled story about Jim Montgomery and that’s as much as I knew.

You became Shoot’s lead commentator for the 1973-74 season.

Somehow I managed to combine this with my BBC commitments, more often than not driving up on the morning of the game and arriving maybe 20 minutes before kick-off and always with a problem of what to do with the bloody car. Sometimes I didn’t get up on the gantry in time to check the teams so relied on memory to get me through.

The hardest part about those days on Shoot was, when a goal was scored, you then had to do your own instant replay without pictures. Can you imagine trying to do a build-up to the goal from the halfway line and time it so that it will fit the picture when they put it in before transmission?

I would say, to be honest, I was a pretty awful commentator. There was one day at Roker Park, it was a boring game against Crystal Palace, another 0-0, and I had worked through the night and driven up. I fell asleep during the game – I actually fell asleep. And I woke up, and my director was screaming in my ear, “For fuck’s sake, David, say something!” And he gave me a picture of the Palace manager Malcolm Allison in his fur coat and fedora. And I said, pretty much word for word, “And there’s Malcolm Allison, who has a reputation for drinking champagne, and frankly, if I was the manager of Crystal Palace, it would drive me to drink.” Very good, but it had to be edited out!

I had to quit after that season, because I’d started working on BBC Panorama and I couldn’t possibly do both jobs. I actually had the warm distinction of being replaced as Tyne-Tees commentator by Kenneth Wolstenholme. In my case, they think it’s all over, it is now!

You mentioned Panorama. How did the Millwall documentary come about?

Well, it came about because hooliganism was so prevalent in the 70s, so I decided I would do some research. I didn’t initially try to sell the idea to my editor. I just went and stood on the terraces on a Saturday afternoon at most of the big London clubs. I tried to meet up with the hard boys – the gangs, or firms as they liked to call themselves. Anyway, I would ask them all the same question and they all gave the same answer. “Who’s the hardest?” “Millwall.” And of course Millwall already had a reputation for games being stopped and quite a lot of violence. I then went to Millwall and started meeting the boys that were in the three firms, Treatment, F-Troop and the Halfway Line. I remember they used to like to wear these surgical masks, which now would be quite useful [during the coronavirus pandemic]. 

I spent two or three months on the terraces, levelling with people and saying, “Look, I want to know what makes you tick. Why do you behave like this? What is it about your life that you don’t like?” And they were, by and large, very forthcoming. Afterwards, the Sports Minister and the Football Association basically decided to try to get [the producer] Jonathan Holmes and myself sacked, and certainly to get the BBC to apologise for the programme. The Sunday papers went to Millwall and started trying to bribe the hooligans into saying that they’d been bribed by us. It didn’t work at all. There was this kind of tribal loyalty and I was really very grateful to them, you know. It actually was a good experience. Anyway, it really worried the government, and led to the setting up of the Centre for Football Research at [the University of] Leicester. So it had some positive outcomes.

You did some pretty heavy current affairs stuff, for example about the IRA and the Falklands, but you continued to make football documentaries.

I did two BBC documentaries about Newcastle. The first was when John Hall was trying to take over the club. Ray Stubbs was the producer. It was called “Newcastle Disunited”. I was constantly running between the two sides. There was the Hall camp, and then there was [the club chairman] Gordon McKeag fighting a rear-guard action to try to preserve what was a family affair. Anyway, Gordon McKeag, whom I quite liked, said to me, “I’ve got nothing against John Hall. But the problem is not John Hall. It’s who John Hall sells to.” That was prescient, wasn’t it?

Because he sold to Mike Ashley. The second documentary covered Kevin Keegan’s return to Newcastle as manager. Were you there when he famously stormed off saying, “It’s not like they said in the brochure”?

That was all to do with buying Brian ‘Killer’ Kilcline. He was not the most skilful player you’ve ever seen, and John Hall had blocked the signing. So Keegan threw a moody and Terry McDermott had to go after him and get him back from Scotch Corner. That’s where he’d got to. And I’m with Hall, and he’s had to get his wife’s chequebook out to buy Kilcline! I said, “But what does Lady Hall want with him?!”

On another occasion, after a bit of filming, we found Keegan standing by his car struggling to find the keys. Ray Stubbs found them for him. It was just typical of Ray. I mean, Ray would do anything for anybody and he’s really very resourceful. He climbed under Keegan’s car and found them under there!

Do you still enjoy watching football?

I love to watch the current Liverpool team, obviously. With Newcastle, I think their time has gone. I’ve got a very high opinion of Allan Saint-Maximin. I loved watching Bobby Mitchell and David Ginola, who were genius left-wingers, and I think Saint-Maximin has it in him to equal them. He is the one present Newcastle player who I think is outstanding, or potentially outstanding anyway. Put him in a better team and he could achieve great things.

Oh, you see, I’ve had a lot of good times in football, just observing, I’ve never been any good at playing it. But it’s a great game. And the thing that matters most about it is hope. Hope is what you need and hope is what Mike Ashley has totally stifled at Newcastle. My hope is that by the time this is published he’ll be gone.